With coronavirus making travel a tricky and even potentially dangerous prospect this year, we’re embracing the summer staycation. All week (and all summer) long, we’ll bring you transportive flavors and travel-inspired ideas from around the world, so you can take your tastebuds on a trip and give your mind a mini vacation while you’re still at home. Here, chef Preeti Mistry on how to make the best garam masala.
What Is Garam Masala?
Garam masala is India’s ubiquitous spice blend, the pinch that adds flavor at pretty much any stage during a dish’s evolution, from cooking pot to table. The name simply means “warm spice blend” and like many seasoning blends, will vary from region to region and from cook to cook. This garam masala recipe is from Preeti Mistry, former chef and owner of Juhu Beach Club.
The Juhu Beach Club Cookbook: Indian Spice, Oakland Soul by Preeti Mistry with Sarah Henry, $30 from Amazon
The restaurant is closed, but the cookbook is still a wonderful resource.
It’s essential for chicken tikka masala, but also delicious in many other dishes.
What Is in Garam Masala?
Mistry’s garam masala is comprised of nine spices:
- Coriander: Look for large, gold-colored seeds; fresh ones have a citruslike aroma.
- Cumin: Nutty and pungent, with a richness that seems almost oily.
- Fennel: The best fennel seeds (licorice-sweet and green as fresh hay) are from India’s Lucknow region.
- Cassia: The bark is thicker, harder, and less flaky than true cinnamon, and the taste is less sweet. “There’s a certain amount of bitterness and aggressiveness,” Mistry says.
- Green Cardamom: The best green cardamom—sweet, with a refreshing aroma—comes from South India.
- Black Cardamom: Dried over charcoal, these have an earthy, smoky flavor reminiscent of smoked paprika, or dried chipotle chiles (minus the heat).
- Cloves: Good whole cloves—like ones from the state of Kerala in southwestern India—have a sweet, numbing pungency.
- Chiles: Use clean-tasting dried chiles here. Mistry uses chiles de arbol, though Indian Kashmiri chiles (less spicy than arbols—they’re pictured above) also work well.
- Black Peppercorns: Any good ones will do, though large, black Tellicherry peppercorns have a rich flavor and a clean-hitting pungency.
Other spices that often show up in garam masala include nutmeg, mace, and bay leaves. (Mistry thinks their preference for coriander and cumin gives away their family’s roots in the western Indian state of Gujarat, where the spice blend dhana jeera is king.)
How to Make Garam Masala
No matter what specific blend of spices you settle on, these four tips are essential for making the most of them and creating the best-testing spice blend possible:
You can’t cook good Indian food with stale spices (this is basically true of any cuisine). Spices are the soul of a dish, the things that give it resonance, so sourcing good ones is essential.
“If a spice has been sitting around, either in the store or in some warehouse before it even gets to the store, it becomes this homogenous thing,” Mistry says. “You just can’t taste it.”
So make sure you start with fresh, good-quality, preferably whole spices—if you’re unsure of the turnover at local stores, try an online purveyor like one of the following:
If you’d rather use a pre-made garam masala blend, buy that from a reputable source with high turnover (so you know it’s as fresh as possible) too. And if you go this route, Mistry suggests upping the smoke and spice by adding 1/2 teaspoon each smoked paprika and cayenne pepper to your store-bought blend.
Related Reading: The Best Places to Buy Pantry Staples Online
Toasting your spices intensifies their flavor and can be done either in the oven or on the stovetop.
For oven toasting, spread out your spices in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit until fragrant and hot, about 8 minutes. Pay special attention to the chiles in this mix—they’ll darken, but don’t let them burn!
For toasting on the stovetop rather than in the oven, spread the whole spices into a dry sauté pan large enough to hold them in a single layer. Toast over medium heat until the spices are fragrant and the chiles brittle but not burned, about 5 minutes.
Whichever method you use, dump the toasted spices into a cool bowl to stop them from carrying over and edging into bitter, burnt territory; a chilled metal bowl is best for this.
Grind Your Own
Process the toasted spices in batches in a dedicated spice grinder or a coffee grinder you keep for the purpose. Since motorized grinders can easily overheat, chill it in the freezer before grinding so the blades are nice and cool.
Secura Electric Coffee and Spice Grinder, $46.98 from Amazon
This model comes with two stainless steel blades and removable bowls.
Related Reading: CNET’s Picks for the Best Coffee Grinders of 2020
A mortar and pestle will also work, but will take longer and won’t grind as finely.
Sometimes a chunkier mix is desirable (like if you’re making dukkah to use as a crust or dip), but for this garam masala you want to grind the spices as finely as possible.
Once you’ve made your mix, use it within three days—nothing loses its pungency like ground spices. (If you are storing it for any length of time, be sure it’s in an air-tight container away from heat and light.)
Here are some recipes that use garam masala, but try it on simple grilled chicken or seafood too.
Related Reading: 11 Other DIY Spice Blends You Should Try
John Birdsall wrote the original version of this story in 2014. It has been updated with additional links, images, and text.
Photos by Chris Rochelle